Category Archives: Historical

Review: The Silent Fountain by Victoria Fox

Title: The Silent Fountain by Victoria Fox
Publisher: MIRA
Genre: Historical (70s & 80s), Contemporary, Mystery, Suspense
Length: 400 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Hollywood, 1978

Tragedy sends troubled film star Vivien Lockhart into the arms of Giovanni Moretti—and it seems her fortunes have finally changed. Until she meets his sister and learns that her new husband’s past holds dark secrets…

Tuscany, Present day

Lucy Whittaker needs to disappear. But her new home, the crumbling Castillo Barbarossa, is far from the secluded paradise it seemed. Strange sounds come from the attic. The owner of the house will never meet her in person.

The fountain in the courtyard is silent—but has never run dry.

Across the decades, Vivien and Lucy find themselves trapped in the idyllic Italian villa.

And if they are ever to truly escape its walls, they must first unearth its secrets…

Review:

Seamlessly weaving back and forth in time, The Silent Fountain by Victoria Fox is a vaguely sinister mystery which takes place in an isolated Tuscan mansion.

Needing to escape from London, Lucy Whittaker is hired to work for reclusive former actress, Vivien Lockhart in Italy. With no internet or cell service at the spooky mansion, Castillo Barbarossa, she is blissfully unaware of whether or not the mistakes from her past have been exposed. Instead of dwelling on her own problems, Lucy is instead extremely curious about what happened to Vivien and why she lives such a solitary life with no company other than her maid, Adalina and groundskeeper, Salvatore.  After experiencing a few strange events she cannot explain, Lucy tries researching the history of Castillo Barbarossa and Vivien’s past. Finding little information, she teams up with Max Conti, Vivien’s former housekeeper’s nephew. When her personal life begins to implode, Lucy becomes more determined than ever to unearth the truth about Vivien and what happened at Castillo Barbarossa.

In the mid seventies, Vivien escaped her abusive father and fled to Hollywood where she discovered she had to a pay a pretty steep price for fame and fortune.  Just as her life was spiraling out of control, she unexpectedly finds romance with Italian doctor, Giovanni “Gio” Moretti.  Deliriously happy yet wary of his younger sister, Isabella, Vivien eagerly accepts his wedding proposal.  Her dream wedding is marred by a vindictive act by Isabella and soon the three are ensconced at Castillo Barbarossa.  Their initially happy marriage soon falters as Gio works long hours on a secret research project while Vivien grows increasingly frustrated by his refusal to believe Isabella is trying to drive Vivien away. As the years pass, Vivien and Isabella are locked in a battle of wills that culminates in tragedy.

Lucy has not had an easy life and once she is on her own, she makes a terrible decision when she puts her trust her boss, James Calloway. Now that things have gone horribly wrong, she feels incredibly guilty for her perceived role in what happened.  The job in Italy is the perfect opportunity for her to leave the past behind, but she is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with some of the inexplicable and eerie phenomena at  Castillo Barbarossa. While at first curious about the history of the Castillo and what happened to Vivien, Lucy’s quest for answers eventually turns urgent amid her fears about the increasingly disturbing incidents she is experiencing. At the same time, her past is beginning to catch up with her and Lucy is soon facing an inescapable decision about how to handle the situation.

The Silent Fountain is an atmospheric mystery with increasingly ominous overtones.  While Lucy’s story is interesting, readers will most likely find Vivien’s story arc the most compelling.  With the chapters flipping back and forth between past and present, Victoria Fox ratchets up the tension as Vivien’s secrets are slowly revealed. With numerous twists, turns and shocking revelations, the novel comes to a an poignant yet satisfying conclusion. A truly spell-binding, suspenseful mystery that I greatly enjoyed and highly recommend to fans of the genre.

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Filed under Contemporary, Harlequin, Historical, Historical (70s), Historical (80s), Mira, Mystery, Rated B, Review, Suspense, The Silent Fountain, Victoria Fox

Review: The It Girls by Karen Harper

Title: The It Girls by Karen Harper
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: C

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss

Summary:

From New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper comes a novel based on the lives of two amazing sisters . . .

One sailed the Titanic and started a fashion empire . . .

The other overtook Hollywood and scandalized the world . . .

Together, they were unstoppable.

They rose from genteel poverty, two beautiful sisters, ambitious, witty, seductive. Elinor and Lucy Sutherland are at once each other’s fiercest supporters and most vicious critics.

Lucy transformed herself into Lucile, the daring fashion designer who revolutionized the industry with her flirtatious gowns and brazen self-promotion. And when she married Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon her life seemed to be a fairy tale. But success came at many costs—to her marriage and to her children . . . and then came the fateful night of April 14, 1912 and the scandal that followed.

Elinor’s novels titillate readers, and it’s even asked in polite drawing rooms if you would like to “sin with Elinor Glyn?” Her work pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable; her foray into the glittering new world of Hollywood turns her into a world-wide phenomenon. But although she writes of passion, the true love she longs for eludes her.

But despite quarrels and misunderstandings, distance and destiny, there is no bond stronger than that of the two sisters—confidants, friends, rivals and the two “It Girls” of their day.

Review:

Beginning in 1875 and spanning several decades, The It Girls by Karen Harper is a fictionalized novel about real life sisters, Lucy (Lucile) & Elinor (Nellie) Sutherland.

Rising from humble beginnings, Lucy and Elinor’s professional lives took divergent paths, but their personal lives bear startling similarities. Both women are rather impetuous and neither of them make the best decisions regarding the men in their lives. Each of their marriages are somewhat disastrous and they both embark on somewhat scandalous love affairs. Lucy’s love of fashion results in a lucrative career as a designer while Elinor goes on to enjoy success as an author even though her books are rather risqué.  Lucy survives the sinking of the Titantic and later goes on to face a few legal challenges regarding her fashion designs.  In addition to her novels, Elinor pens a few screenplays and mingles with some the famous actors of the silent film era.

Despite the sisters’  fascinating accomplishments, The It Girls is rather slow moving and a little choppy since the novel covers several decades of their lives. The characterization of the women is a little superficial and despite their very different interests, they lack individuality on paper.  While the story is not without flaws, Karen Harper effectively brings attention to two successful women who were very much ahead their time.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical, Karen Harper, Rated C, Review, The It Girls, William Morrow Paperbacks

Review: The Secrets on Chicory Lane by Raymond Benson

Title: The Secrets on Chicory Lane by Raymond Benson
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Mystery, Suspense
Length: 256 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss

Summary:

From the New York Times bestselling author comes a new novel of suspense about coming-of-age in the 1960s—and the neighborhood street where first love, a child abduction, and abuse collide.

Sixty-one-year-old Shelby Truman, a romance novelist, has received a request to visit her childhood friend, Eddie, who is on Death Row. Though mentally ill, Eddie is scheduled to be executed for the disturbing, brutal murders of his wife and unborn child.

As Shelby travels home to Texas for the unnerving reunion, she steps back into memories of her past, recalling her five-decade-long relationship with Eddie in order to understand what led the beautiful but troubled boy who lived across the street to become a murderer. Shelby and Eddie used to visit an abandoned fallout shelter in his backyard, their “secret hiding place” where they could escape Eddie’s abusive father, enjoy innocent playtime, and, later, adolescent explorations. As they grow increasingly close, a tragedy occurs one July fourth, an event that sets in motion a lifelong struggle against an Evil—with a capital “E”—that has corrupted their all-American neighborhood.

With only a few days left for Eddie to live, Shelby braces herself for a reunion that promises to shed light on the traumatic events that transpired on her street, changing everything Shelby thought she knew about the boy on Chicory Lane.

Review:

The Secrets on Chicory Lane by Raymond Benson is a spellbinding, reflective mystery that has quite a few twists and turns.

Sixty one year old romance author Shelby Truman gets the shock of a lifetime when her former first love and on again/off again lover Eddie Newcott requests to see her before he is executed for a horrific murder. Although she has not spoken to him in years, she alters her plans in order to fulfill his request. Her journey from her home in Chicago to the Texas prison is fraught with her memories of her relationship with Eddie. Their childhood friendship turns to romance when they were young teenagers but after tragedy strikes her family, they gradually drift apart then lose touch after Eddie goes to Vietnam.

Over the years, Shelby goes on to embark on intense, short term romances with Eddie but these relationships are unsustainable over the long term. While Shelby finds success as an author, Eddie travels down a very troubled path and becomes rather infamous as the head of a Satanic Church.  Although no one in their small hometown is surprised when he commits a gruesome murder, Shelby is stunned to learn the truth about what happened to Eddie during childhood and his subsequent struggles with mental illness throughout his adulthood.

Uncertain why Eddie wants to meet with her one last time, Shelby goes into their meeting with a few trepidations. Initially disappointed by his incoherent ramblings, she eventually deciphers what he is trying to tell her.  Much to Shelby’s shock, she uncovers a shocking secret that explains why Eddie was so incredibly tormented throughout his life.

The Secrets on Chicory Lane by Raymond Benson is an incredibly well-written and compelling mystery that tackles some dark subject matter. Shelby is an engaging character who has to face some hard truths about the mistakes and missteps she has made throughout her life. Eddie is a surprisingly sympathetic character once the truth about his very troubled past is fully revealed. This haunting story comes to a somewhat shocking, but completely satisfying conclusion.  An absolutely riveting novel that I absolutely loved and highly recommend.

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Mystery, Rated B+, Raymond Benson, Review, Skyhorse Publishing, Suspense, The Secrets on Chicory Lane

Review: The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

Title: The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Historical (40s), Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Steeped in history and filled with heart-wrenching twists, The Stolen Marriage is an emotionally captivating novel of secrets, betrayals, prejudice, and forgiveness. It showcases Diane Chamberlain at the top of her talent.

One mistake, one fateful night, and Tess DeMello’s life is changed forever.

It is 1944. Pregnant, alone, and riddled with guilt, twenty-three-year-old Tess DeMello abruptly gives up her budding career as a nurse and ends her engagement to the love of her life, unable to live a lie. Instead, she turns to the baby’s father for help and agrees to marry him, moving to the small, rural town of Hickory, North Carolina. Tess’s new husband, Henry Kraft, is a secretive man who often stays out all night, hides money from his new wife, and shows her no affection. Tess quickly realizes she’s trapped in a strange and loveless marriage with no way out.

The people of Hickory love and respect Henry but see Tess as an outsider, treating her with suspicion and disdain. When one of the town’s golden girls dies in a terrible accident, everyone holds Tess responsible. But Henry keeps his secrets even closer now, though it seems that everyone knows something about him that Tess does not.

When a sudden polio epidemic strikes Hickory, the townspeople band together to build a polio hospital. Tess knows she is needed and defies Henry’s wishes to begin working at there. Through this work, she begins to find purpose and meaning. Yet at home, Henry’s actions grow more alarming by the day. As Tess works to save the lives of her patients, can she untangle the truth behind her husband’s mysterious behavior and find the love—and the life—she was meant to have?

Review:

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain is a well-researched, historically accurate novel set during the mid 1940s in North Carolina.

Twenty-three year old Tess DeMello is happily engaged to next door neighbor Dr. Vincent Russo. Looking forward to her upcoming wedding and completing her nursing studies, she is disappointed yet understanding when Vincent goes to Chicago to help out during a serious polio outbreak. When his return date continues to get pushed back, she and her best friend take a trip to Washington, DC that forever alters Tess’s life and eventually leads to a loveless marriage to furniture maker Henry Kraft.

Tess is a strong, confident young woman who has a close relationship with her mother and Vincent’s family. Her one misstep has far reaching implications and she loses everything dear to her the aftermath. Not expecting Henry to offer marriage, she nonetheless accepts his proposal and relocates to his hometown of Hickory.  Needless to say, neither her mother-in-law Ruth nor her sister-in-law Lucy welcomes her into the family and Tess grows incredibly lonely in her new circumstances. She is also puzzled by Henry’s lack of interest in their marriage and although she would like to confront him, Tess is fearful of upsetting their fragile bond. Tess remains hopeful things will improve over the coming months and despite her reluctance to go against her husband’s wishes, she nonetheless holds firm when it comes to attaining her RN license.

Tess is definitely a fish out of water in her new home. She is expected to conform to Ruth’s wishes and she gradually loses her sense of self under the weight of these expectations. Dealt a crushing blow in the aftermath of tragic losses, Tess unexpectedly finds the opportunity to fulfill her prior dreams when the town comes together and builds a hospital for polio patients.  When her past crashes headlong into the present, Tess realizes the enormity of everything she has lost, but will she find a way to escape her increasingly unhappy life?

The Stolen Marriage is an enthralling historical novel with a rich cast of vibrantly developed and life-like characters. Tess is an extremely sympathetic and appealing protagonist who is a victim of not only her impetuous decisions but the strictures of time period. The small town of Hickory is realistically depicted but it takes the townspeople’s generosity in the face of adversity for Tess to realize she has misjudged most of its residents.  Diane Chamberlain’s meticulous research of Hickory’s past highlights a remarkable but little known piece of important history. An incredibly captivating and thought-provoking novel that provides an insightful glimpse of turbulent race relations, haunting polio epidemics and limited choices women endured during the mid 1940s in America.

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Filed under Diane Chamberlain, Fiction, Historical, Historical (40s), Rated B+, Review, St Martin's Press, The Stolen Marriage

Review: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Title: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Historical, Literary Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss

Summary:

The New York Times bestselling author of the celebrated A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy returns with this eagerly awaited new novel, set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929 and inspired by actual events. The chronicle of an ordinary woman’s struggle for dignity and her rights in a textile mill, The Last Ballad is a moving tale of courage in the face of oppression and injustice, with the emotional power of Ron Rash’s Serena, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, and the unforgettable films Norma Rae and Silkwood.

Twelve times a week, twenty-eight-year-old Ella May Wiggins makes the two-mile trek to and from her job on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City, North Carolina. The insular community considers the mill’s owners—the newly arrived Goldberg brothers—white but not American and expects them to pay Ella May and other workers less because they toil alongside African Americans like Violet, Ella May’s best friend. While the dirty, hazardous job at the mill earns Ella May a paltry nine dollars for seventy-two hours of work each week, it’s the only opportunity she has. Her no-good husband, John, has run off again, and she must keep her four young children alive with whatever work she can find.

When the union leaflets begin circulating, Ella May has a taste of hope, a yearning for the better life the organizers promise. But the mill owners, backed by other nefarious forces, claim the union is nothing but a front for the Bolshevik menace sweeping across Europe. To maintain their control, the owners will use every means in their power, including bloodshed, to prevent workers from banding together. On the night of the county’s biggest rally, Ella May, weighing the costs of her choice, makes up her mind to join the movement—a decision that will have lasting consequences for her children, her friends, her town—indeed all that she loves.

Seventy-five years later, Ella May’s daughter Lilly, now an elderly woman, tells her nephew about his grandmother and the events that transformed their family. Illuminating the most painful corners of their history, she reveals, for the first time, the tragedy that befell Ella May after that fateful union meeting in 1929.

Intertwining myriad voices, Wiley Cash brings to life the heartbreak and bravery of the now forgotten struggle of the labor movement in early twentieth-century America—and pays tribute to the thousands of heroic women and men who risked their lives to win basic rights for all workers. Lyrical, heartbreaking, and haunting, this eloquent novel confirms Wiley Cash’s place among our nation’s finest writers.

Review:

Rich with historical details and based on real life events, The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash shines a much needed light on the  National Textile Workers Union attempt to secure better wages and working conditions for textile workers in the south.

In 1929, single mother Ella May Wiggins works twelve hours a day, six days a week at American Mill No. 2. Although she relies on the kindness of her neighbors in Stumpton to help watch over her four children while she is working, her $9 a week paycheck barely covers rent and food for her and her family. After attending a union rally in nearby Gastonia where workers at the Loray Mill are being evicted from their homes after going on strike, Ella becomes an unlikely spokeswoman for the union when she wins over the crowd with her moving life story and recently penned ballad, The Mill Mother’s Lament.  Over the next several months, Ella and union organizer Sophia Blevin continue their efforts to integrate Ella’s African-American neighbors and co-workers into the National Textile Workers Union. In the deeply segregated South where minorities and women have no voice or rights, Ella’s work with the union is dangerous and her attempts to include African-Americans in the fight for better wages culminates in heartbreak.

Growing up in poverty in the NC mountains,  Ella marries young and follows her husband, John, from one mill town to another. After the death of their young son, John abandons her and their children and Ella cannot find work anywhere except American Mill No. 2 where whites and African Americans work alongside one another. After coming close to losing her job when she stays home to care for her sick baby, Ella is drawn to the union rally in hopes of improving pay and working conditions for herself and her fellow workers. She is pragmatic and deals with every hardship that comes her way with stoicism yet Ella’s love for her children is fierce.

While Ella is the central figure in the unfolding story, the chapters alternate between various points of view.  Daughter Lilly’s perspective takes place in the present as she shares memories of those long ago days with her nephew, Edwin.  Verchel Park’s acquaintance with Ella’s former husband John has unintended consequences that he only realizes long after their occurrence. The wife of a wealthy mill owner from a neighboring town, Katherine McAdam is drawn to Ella through a shared loss and their unlikely friendship proves to be life saving. African-American train porter Hampton Haywood’s family fled Mississippi in fear for their lives and although he now lives in New York, he cannot resist the call to help the union organizers in the South.  Disgraced police officer Albert Roach is instrumental in setting in motion the final confrontation that ends with a devastating loss.

The Last Ballad is a meticulously researched novel with a thought-provoking and poignant storyline. Based on factual events,  Wiley Cash brings the characters, setting and time period in this compelling story vibrantly to life.  Ella May Wiggins’ struggles to provide for her family are positively gut wrenching and her impressive efforts to improve working conditions and higher wages are captivating.  I absolutely loved and highly recommend this extraordinary novel that highlights a mostly forgotten yet vastly important time in the history of the labor movement.

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Filed under Historical, Historical (20s), Literary Fiction, Rated B+, Review, The Last Ballad, Wiley Cash, William Morrow

Review: Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Title: Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Length: 321 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But only once he’s there, amid the exotic exhibits, fireworks, and Ferris wheels, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off—a healthy boy “to a good home.”

The winning ticket belongs to the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel, famous for educating her girls. There, Ernest becomes the new houseboy and befriends Maisie, the madam’s precocious daughter, and a bold scullery maid named Fahn. Their friendship and affection form the first real family Ernest has ever known—and against all odds, this new sporting life gives him the sense of home he’s always desired.

But as the grande dame succumbs to an occupational hazard and their world of finery begins to crumble, all three must grapple with hope, ambition, and first love.

Fifty years later, in the shadow of Seattle’s second World’s Fair, Ernest struggles to help his ailing wife reconcile who she once was with who she wanted to be, while trying to keep family secrets hidden from their grown-up daughters.

Against a rich backdrop of post-Victorian vice, suffrage, and celebration, Love and Other Consolations is an enchanting tale about innocence and devotion—in a world where everything, and everyone, is for sale.

Review:

Based on a real life event and weaving back and forth in time, Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford is a bittersweet novel about a mixed race Chinese orphan who is raffled off during the 1909 World’s Fair.

The 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle proves to be quite illuminating to Ernest Young’s family. Much of Ernest and his wife’s Gracie’s history is unknown to their daughters, investigative reporter Judy and Las Vegas showgirl Hannah.  At the age of five, young Ernest’s mother arranges for her son to travel to America where she hopes he will find a better future. Upon his arrival in Washington, he becomes a ward of the state and later comes to the attention of a wealthy benefactress who pays for him to attend a private boarding school. Unlike the wealthy children in attendance, Ernest and the other orphans experience racism and discrimination and  when his answer to a question displeases his benefactress, she  arranges to offer him as a prize for a raffle at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific World Exposition. The holder of the winning ticket is Madame Flora, the proprietress of a notorious yet popular high class brothel. Life at The Tenderloin is a surprisingly positive experience for young Ernest and he quickly befriends Flora’s daughter Maisie and scullery maid, Fahn. Ernest’s feelings for both girls run deeper than friendship but there is not much room for love in a brothel. When Madame Flora’s health begins to deteriorate, what will the future hold for Ernest, Fahn, Maisie and the rest of the staff at the brothel?

In 1962, Ernest is facing the harsh reality of Grace’s dementia and he is willing to make any sacrifice  to protect her.  With memories of the past already stirred up as Seattle prepares for the upcoming Century 21 Exposition, he is concerned when Judy begins an investigation into the orphan raffle in 1909 for an upcoming newspaper article. Fearing the effect the truth about his and Gracie’s history will have on their friends and daughters, Ernest tries to keep the secrets he and his wife have closely guarded for half a century. When Gracie becomes more cognizant of events occurring in the present, will she inadvertently reveal their hidden pasts?

In Love and Other Consolation Prizes,  Jamie Ford presents a very poignant and realistic depiction of the hardships and prejudice that immigrants endured after arriving in the United States.  Rich with historic elements, this incredible novel has a fascinating storyline that is heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting.  A moving novel which keeps readers waiting with breathless anticipation to learn the identity of the young woman who finally wins Ernest’s heart.

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Filed under Ballantine Books, Fiction, Historical, Jamie Ford, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, Rated B, Review